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Olympic Values for the 21st Century

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Critics rightly point to large gaps between Olympic ideals and Olympic realities. A global enterprise at the intersection of sports, business, and world politics, the Olympic movement succeeds spectacularly in pulling off the Games every two years. Along the way, the International Olympic Committee, its national offshoots, and diverse sporting federations profess that the underlying purpose is to advance the core Olympic values of excellence, friendship, and respect.

But in London, as in previous years, national rivalries, commercial entanglements, and bureaucratic interests have impeded efforts to live up to those values in practice. Examples include thrown badminton matches, doping allegations, and sponsor-enforced restrictions on athletes' use of social media.

This gap between rhetoric and reality is not a cause for resignation. It is a call to action.

Each Olympic Games--especially this summer in London--is a challenge to revive the Olympic Charter's commitment to place "sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind." It is a call to reflect on how the Games--and sport more generally--can live up to core Olympic values, and how those values can advance the cause of peace and human development, within and among nations.

International celebration is the critical starting point. In London, some 12,000 athletes from more than 200 countries are competing in 50 events and living together in the Olympic Village. World leaders are in attendance. More than four billion people are following the Games on television or online. The opening and closing ceremonies are celebrations of values that unite humanity in an era of increasing globalization.

The challenge is to sustain and nurture Olympic values in other contexts after the athletes leave London. The focus should be on three critical areas, inside and outside the world of sport.

Greater social inclusion is critical. Many Olympic sports -- equestrian competitions for example--are indelibly associated with wealth. Excellence in sports is increasingly associated with money. Talented and motivated young people in much of the world do not have the opportunity even to test how far they can go. The Paralympics offer paths toward including far more people but do not address the ongoing problems of unequal access and opportunity. Outside the Games, sports and development programs advance the cause of greater inclusion, but do not address the problems of social inequality head on.

Curbing commercialism is the second challenge. The success of the modern Olympic Movement has attracted tremendous public interest and corporate investment. The Olympics have become such a big business that even the name Olympics is bought and sold--more than 40 percent of revenue generated comes from commercial partnerships. Of course the costly Games must be paid for and corporate support helps makes worldwide coverage possible. But commercialism can go too far, as in the case of allowing McDonalds, the official restaurant of the Olympic Games with a location inside the Olympic Village, to sponsor of a competition that encourages a healthy lifestyle. Careful vetting of sponsors and their business practices, including fair labor standards around the world, is necessary to counteract cynicism about Olympic values.

Finally, world leaders should take up the long-neglected ideal of the Olympic Truce - a commitment to suspend violent conflict around the Games that has its roots in Ancient Greece. Although 193 countries endorsed the Olympic Truce in a United Nations General Assembly vote in October 2011, no real efforts have been made to halt the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world with the spotlight of the Olympics as a nudge and genuine inspiration. The Truce is an opportunity to advance the cause of peace, a necessary precondition for the flourishing of excellence, respect, and friendship on a global scale. Countries bidding for the Olympics in the future should pledge to further the ideal of the Truce in their national diplomacy and in international organizations.

In a narrow sense, the Olympic Games are about sports and entertainment. But in an era of globalization they have much greater significance. The Olympic movement is the most visible platform for the celebration of shared human values in the 21st century. As our world becomes more integrated and democracy and human rights advance, however haltingly, the IOC and the Olympic Movement should increase their internal transparency and accountability and work with governments and civil society to advance Olympic values not just in sport, but culture, society, and politics.

We should continue to criticize the Olympic movement for not living up to its values. But we should also explore new ways to celebrate and realize those values in the 21st century.

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